Colorado Mountain College in Rifle serves up culinary experience with school credit
Students at Coal Ridge and Rifle high schools are in for a treat, beyond the delicious pastry they’ll learn to create, when they sign up for the culinary program at Colorado Mountain College in Rifle.
The intensive class offers a feast of culinary training and real-world experience, topped off with two hours of vocational credit (one per semester).
The class, taught by adjunct instructor and chef Matt Maier, strives to introduce young people to exceptional food and excellent opportunities in the culinary industry.
“On day one,” Maier said, “I ask the kids why they’re here. This year, a lot of them said they wanted to learn to cook, which is great. But now, I have at least one student going on to culinary school.”
Student Kirsten Tuazon said “Chef Matt,” as the students call him, has sparked her love of cooking.
“Because of this class,” Tuazon said, “I’m making my passion into a career I plan on doing for the rest of my life.”
Maier is living proof of the opportunities to be found in the culinary arts. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, he worked his way into chef positions at several five-star and five-diamond restaurants and resorts, including Relais & Châteaux, an exclusive chain of upscale hotel hideaways across Europe.
Now, in addition to teaching culinary arts locally through ProStart, Youth Entity and CMC, Maier runs his own private chef business.
“Teaching has given me a great opportunity to give back to the community and work with kids,” he said. “It’s really rewarding.”
Through a partnership with Grand River Health, students have the opportunity to learn and reinforce their culinary skills in the hospital’s working kitchen.
Tuazon, who is especially adept at baking and making pastry, said she has learned a lot about nutrition.
“I know how to substitute ingredients to make food healthier,” she said, “and I’ve learned to really taste my food before adding salt.”
Lynne Miller, director of nutritional services for Grand River Health, has helped oversee the Rifle culinary program since its inception four years ago.
“I think the biggest surprise for the students is that hospital food is more than reheating something you bought frozen,” she said. “We have two trained chefs on staff, and there’s nothing blah about the food here.”
Working in a hospital setting also makes students aware of other options in the culinary field.
“It helps students see that there are other fields beyond restaurants,” said Miller. “You can be a registered dietitian or nutritionist and translate your love of food into those channels.”
“The culinary program is just one example of the classes that develop real-world skills in our students to prepare them to be well-rounded and productive citizens once they leave high school,” said Garfield School District Re-2 Superintendent Dr. Susan Birdsey. “It helps students develop a career path that will serve them the rest of their lives.”
Hands-on experience, real-world opportunities
“My main role is to get students hands-on experience,” said Miller. “So, I work alongside Chef Matt and try to reinforce the lessons he is teaching, either at a restaurant or a catered event, or working here in the hospital kitchen for our patients.”
A few students from the culinary classes have worked in the hospital kitchen. One former student, Alden Rasic, has been employed by the hospital kitchen for more than a year and a half in the equivalent of a sous chef position. Next month, he plans to move to New Orleans to work in a restaurant.
“About five of the current culinary students will be catering an event at the end of the month,” said Miller. “I’ve also had students do cooking demonstrations that have been televised on the local information channel here in Rifle. We have taken field trips to greenhouses to follow our food from farm to plate. I try to expose them to as many culinary aspects of restaurants and health care as I can.”
Thanks to what they learn in the culinary program, said Miller, “I hire these students because I know they have the skills that most eateries are looking for.”
A head start toward healthy futures
Tuazon, who will graduate from Rifle High School in May, recently learned that she has been accepted into the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder. The program begins in the fall, and the budding chef said she feels like she’ll be more than ready for the challenge.
“The first two weeks at school will be spent earning your SafeServe certification,” she said, “and I already have mine.”
Maier spends the first segment of his classes helping students earn their national SafeServe certificates. The class then moves on to explore knife skills, soups, sauces and, finally, baking, pastry and yeast breads.
“They commit to the full year,” said Maier. “CMC campuses in Breckenridge, Edwards and Steamboat Springs offer a degree in culinary arts, and this experience helps kids decide if this is something they want to continue to pursue.”
“I would highly recommend this class,” said Tuazon, “even just for the cooking. If you don’t know how to cook, you should learn before going off to college.”
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